Marathon: from Boston to the Original

By Barbara Harrison

MARATHON, GREECE – On Patriot’s Day in Boston, people celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the start of the American Revolution. Annually on that day, too, the Boston Marathon is run. This year, over 35,000 runners from 96 countries, and 500,000 spectators captured the world’s attention.

A few days after the Boston Marathon, on April 25, Greek Study Fellows in The Examined Life: Greek Studies in the Schools, teachers and writers, from across the nation, one from Hopkinton, MA and several from Boston, MA, gathered in Marathon, Greece at the sacred burial mound, known as the “tumulus of the Athenians.”

A roar of thunder and flash of lightning lit up the sky – and in a brief reprieve from pelting rain, the Fellows read excerpts from poets and historians, and honored the victory in 490 BCE of the vastly outnumbered Athenians over a massive Persian force. Fellows paid homage to the 192 Athenian soldiers buried there and commemorated the victims and heroes of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The tumulus is simple and unadorned, a high hill dramatically situated in the midst of a flat coastal plain. In the distance thickly forested mountains slope gently down to the sea. Some say that at night in the pitch of darkness, the spirits of the 192 Athenian soldiers rise from their resting place and one can hear them chant a haunting hymn to Apollo, followed by the high-pitched neighing of horses and an indomitable war cry, “Eleleu, Eleleu!”

Michael Siedlecki, The Examined Life’s first 26.2 Foundation Fellow, a history teacher from Hopkinton, the starting line of the Boston Marathon, and Marathon, Greece’s sister city, spoke persuasively about his school district’s “26.2 Desire to Inspire” initiative. “Our goal,” he said, “is to integrate the battle, and the marathon itself, into all components of the Hopkinton curriculum.”

He touted an award-winning essay written by one of his students that spoke to why, knowing the overwhelming odds, the Athenians left their homes to fight the Persians. The victory has been hailed as nothing less than remarkable and one that saved the nascent Athenian democracy and culture.

“To this day we are inspired by the impassioned Athenian call to freedom,” Barbara Scotto, adjunct professor and Brookline, MA school committee member, said. “Liberty is fundamental to Greek ideals and stands for everything we cherish as a nation.”

Professor Scotto is the online course facilitator in The Examined Life’s landmark program that takes as its theme the Socratic call to “the examined life” and inspires teachers, and, in turn, students to explore ideas as important today as in antiquity: democracy and the obligations of citizenship, hubris and humility, anger and reconciliation, the meaning of virtue, the concept of war.

In Examined Life course work, Siedlecki and his colleagues read The Iliad and The Odyssey; the writings of historians Herodotus and Thucydides; the philosophy of Plato; and tragedies of poet and playwright Aeschylus who fought at Marathon and toward the end of his life, wrote his own epitaph.

Despite his renown as a writer, Aeschylus asked simply to be remembered as a soldier who fought bravely against the Medes on the Marathon battlefield. His inscription speaks to the significance of the battle.

The legendary story of the foot runner Pheidippides also speaks to the battle’s significance. Before the battle, he ran 140 miles from Marathon to Sparta seeking help over steep mountain passes and back again – and after fighting in the battle, ran 25 miles to Athens to declare the victory. “Nenikekamen” (“We have won!”), he cried out, before he gave in to total exhaustion, and entered the immortal realm of the gods.

Usually in the lead of groups of students, teachers were in the privileged position of being led on a memorable study tour of Greece. The tour was the culmination of a year-long immersion in ancient Greek studies. For everyone, it was a first visit to Marathon – and for most, a first trip to Greece.

Director of the Mayor’s office, Eleni Moraitake, was especially happy to meet Siedlecki, from a sister city, and escorted Fellows to the Marathon Run Museum where exhibits and a pictorial timeline provide ample evidence of the marathon’s popularity.

It was in 1896 at the revival of the Olympic Games that a new marathon run event was introduced with the starting line in Marathon and the finish line the white marble Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. The new event evoked the triumphant battle and Pheidippides’ storied run and attracted worldwide attention.

Spiridon Louis, a modest 23 year-old Greek water-carrier from Maroussi, won the 1896 run to the cheers and wild applause of an ecstatic crowd; and in 1897 an inspired Boston held its first marathon. The Boston Marathon ranks among the top runs in the world and is the oldest annual run.

While the visit to Greece’s Marathon, only a few days after the 2014 Boston Marathon, was a high point on the study tour, there were others, such as Athens, Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae, Aegina, all derived from course readings and like Marathon, timeless and universal.

In a talk titled “Each Odyssey Unique” by ExL honorary board member Gregory Maguire, author of the novel Wicked, upon which the winning Broadway musical Wicked is based, paid homage to the Homeric epics and shared his Odyssean experiences, amazing coincidences and twists of fate in his life and writings, his Greek heritage on his birth mother’s side, and the comfort of literature and language in his life.

Presented at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) in Nafplion, the popular American writer held his audience spellbound, Greek teachers from Athens and the Argolid region, including translators Eva Kaliskami and Vasso Nika, and author Vangelis Iliopoulos, members of the Greek section of the International Board on Books for Young People.

In writer-in-residence and former UPI reporter, Suzanne Fisher Staples’ Writers’ Workshop on the island of Aegina, not far from the home of Nikos Kazantzakis of Zorba the Greek fame, and the 500 BCE Temple of Aphaia, Fellows became poets, novelists, and playwrights, their writings animated by myth and drama.

In a dramatic reading of Fellow Judith Clifton’s “Know Thyself: A Poem in Three Voices,” inspired by Sophocles’ Oedipus, the King,” voices became ardent and intense; and when writing scripts and performing the roles of Athena, Arachne, and Pandora in Elizabeth Poe’s Readers’ Theater, voices became both serious and playful.

Fellows became aspiring polyglots referring to themselves by their Greek names, “Mateos,” “Mihali,” “Theodora,” “Stavros;” and talking animatedly about such modern renderings of the classics as David Malouf’s poetic novel Achilles.

They were scribblers and shutterbugs, along with graphic artist Stephen Coren, ExL director of media production, and professional photographer Debi Milligan, who teaches photography at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, an ethnically and racially diverse school that boasts among its alums, actor Matt Damon, poet E.E. Cummings, and NY Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as the Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I had Tamerlan in class, Debi Milligan said, and came to know his brother Dzhokhar as well…Neither seemed unusual…Both fit in in his own way…It breaks my heart that they did what they did,” she said. “I really can’t believe it happened – except that it did,” she said sadly.

At Olympia’s Archaeological Museum the battered bronze helmet of Miltiades, Athenian general who master minded the Marathon battle plan, attracted much attention– and at the stadium in Olympia, Fellows ran a foot race, most prized of all events in the ancient games. David Barry, teacher at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School crossed the finish line in an impressive first.

In a back road neighborhood taverna in the port town of Nafplion, Matthew Kazlauskas, surprised travelers with his virtuosity on the bouzouki; and Fellows learned traditional Greek folkdances with O’Bryant teachers, Nora Tsoutsis and Pauline Tsoutsis, and versatile tour guide, Mara Kanari, in the lead. Fellows applauded, too, folkdance acrobatic feats that Hopkinton and Boston Fellows demonstrated on the dance floor, dance revered today as it was in antiquity.

Impressed with the taste of authentic Greek yogurt and honey and other elixirs in the Mediterranean diet, they became epicurists as well as mythologists, archaeologists, historians, and mountaineers, climbing the heights of the Acropolis, Delphi, Mycenae, Lycabettus.

They joined Athenians on the candle-light procession of the beautifully decorated Epitaphion, the figurative tomb of Christ, led by priests of Aghia Ekaterina, mid-11th century Byzantine church located in Plaka, the capital city’s old neighborhood. And in Delphi, Fellows attended the triumphant midnight service, after which firecrackers echoed through the streets as Greek Orthodox and Protestants celebrated the same Easter day for the first time in several years. Some Fellows enjoyed the traditional Easter break-fast tradition of magiritsa, a prized Greek soup made from lamb offal.

Fellows learned something more from Greek children about the power of story. Katherine Paterson, former National Ambassador of Books for the Young, met with students from Athens’ Panagiotopoulos School who had read her classic Bridge to Terabithia in a successful effort to master English. The riveting story of friendship and loss clearly captured their imagination – and in interviewing Katherine Paterson, and showing short films about their experiences, the students and a beloved American author created a lasting bond.

One ambitious youngster with a wry grin, proclaimed, “Students are the most hardworking people in Greece.” He paused for a moment and then pitched forward with, “next to the teachers, of course.” His words drew many cheers!

Elpida (Hope) is a common name given to Greek children as well as Eirini (Peace), Niki (victory), Eleftheria (Freedom), names representing ideals valued by every Greek even to this day.

Through fresh knowledge and perspectives and the development of exciting new curricula, Greek Study Fellows will share their love of Greece with their schools and school communities. Through their participation in The Examined Life, a program that sets the highest standards of professional education, Fellows become trailblazers in educational reform in the United States, united in their efforts to revive Socratic ideals fundamental to the best in American education, and to turn rancor and divisiveness in almost every sector of our nation into principled debate.

The lifelong interest and joy in learning that led Fellows into their profession were apparent as they acquired greater knowledge, insights, cultural awareness, and a sense of renewal that affirmed their work and their lives. They were audience and players, students as well as teachers on a journey filled with excitement, and beauty. “The experience was transformative,” Fellow Maggie Chang, said.

Participants appreciated discussions with ExL’s honorary professor Jill Paton Walsh, Booker Prize nominee and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London. At the burial site in Marathon, she rendered a passionate recitation of Lord Byron’s “The Isles of Greece” written in 1821 at the time of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman empire – “The mountains look on Marathon,” she called out, “And Marathon looks on the sea/And musing there an hour alone/I dream’d that Greece might yet be free /For, standing on the Persians’ grave/I could not deem myself a slave. . . ” Byron’s words, a call to liberty.

In Boston, in 2014, men and women, young and old, ran in defense of freedom, “Boston Strong” their mantra, signifying that they will not be brought down by fear, intimidation, and terrorism. Meb Keflezighi, 2014 winner, an American citizen of Eritrean descent, declared that his victory was for the 2013 survivors and victims.

Boston, Athens, Hopkinton, Marathon, “each city’s odyssey unique” yet united by remarkable civic pride and as symbols of the relentless struggle for freedom fought by millions of people throughout the history of humankind.

Hopkinton’s initiative to use the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon and the legend of Pheidippides as “the starting line” of an ambitious study of the culture and legacy of ancient Greece reaches across disciplines, age levels, and nations.

In 1801 when she was 12 years old, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a long narrative poem titled “The Battle of Marathon.” In the preface, she said, “[The Battle} is a subject every way formed to call forth the feelings of the heart, to awake the strongest passions of the soul. Who can be indifferent, who can preserve his tranquility, when he hears of one little city rising undaunted, and daring her innumerable enemies in defense of her freedom.”


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